Portuguese architecture

Azulejos: A Brief History of the Tiles of Portugal

Tiles in Porto/Pixabay

Visitors to Portugal are apt to notice the stunning tiles around the country.  They are decorative, they are historic, and they tell a story.  And I would like to tell you a bit of that story now.

When Did the Tiles First Appear in Portugal?

Azulejos first appeared in Portugal back in the 13th Century when the Moors invaded the Iberian peninsula.  The term “azulejo” comes from Arabic and means “small polished stone.”  The first tiles were plain earth tones cut into simple geometric shapes.

Originally, the tiles imitated Byzantine and Roman mosaics.  Some of the earliest production of tiles was in Seville, Spain.  Here, artisans glazed the tiles, cut them into smaller pieces for transport, then reassembled them into geometric shapes (mymodernmet.com).

Decorative azulejos exploded in popularity in Portugal during the reign of King Manuel I in the early 1500s. The king used them extensively in the Sintra National Palace. From there, the Portuguese love affair with azulejos blossomed.  “This was so much so that they even adopted the Moorish tradition of horror vacui (or the fear of empty space) and began to cover walls completely with the glazed tiles” (mymodernmet.com).

Decorative azulejos covered large blank walls in buildings and churches beginning in the Gothic period in the late 1500s.  Taking inspiration from the Far East and the clothing and carpets of that region, people began interweaving scenes of flowers in the tiles.

What Did the First Tiles Look Like?

At first, azulejos were simply blue and white.  These colors are believed to signify the Age of Discoveries (15th to 18th centuries), the time of the great Portuguese maritime age.  On occasion, these early tiles may also have had yellow or green added to them.

Portuguese of the 1500s relied on obtaining tiles from Seville.  During this time, Italian artisans brought improved tile decorative techniques to the production of azulejos.  This allowed tiles to advance from repetitive patterns to unique individual tiles by painting on them.  Now the tiles represented unique artistic creations. 

Once King Manuel I introduced these fancier tiles to Portugal, people began to use them to tell stories of their history, religion, and culture.  In churches, told the creation story or of the crucifixion of Jesus.  In government buildings, they showcased the heroes of the day like Ferdinand Magellan or Vasco de Gama.

Azulejos appeared both inside and outside buildings as decorations.  They soon became artwork for the people to admire for art’s sake, not just a way to tell stories.

At the end of the 17th century, KingPeter II ended the importation of tiles.  All tiles had to be produced, designed, and painted in Portugal.  The large 17th and early 18th centuries became known as the Golden Age of the Azulejo.  

Tiles in More Modern Times

Over the past couple of centuries, the popularity of azulejos has exploded.  You can now find them practically everywhere – in or on train stations (the most famous is Porto’s San Bento station), churches, monasteries, restaurants, bars, even in private homes.  Manufacturers even reproduce Azulejos on textiles.

In 1755, an earthquake destroyed Lisbon.  During the rebuilding of the city, tiles initially took on a more utilitarian rather than a decorative role.  As time went on, people returned to the decorative azulejo style.

During the 20th century, azulejos took on art nouveau and art deco styles.  In the 1970s and 1980s, the city of Lisbon commissioned artists to decorate the underground train stations.
The Museu Nacional do Azulejo, the National Azulejo Museum in Lisbon is an art museum dedicated to the azulejo.  Opened in 1965, the museum offers tours and on occasion, people can take a tile-making class.  That is something I and my family will do, for sure. We will be sure to write a post or two about our experiences in the museum and in the class itself.


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